Use the Web's No. 1 Activity: Searching

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The Internet now has the broadest reach of any medium, including television and radio. What are people doing all that time online? To tell the truth, I'd rather not know, but I do know this: More often than not, they begin by searching.


After all these years, search remains the No. 1 online activity. Using engines such as Ask Jeeves, Google and Yahoo, people look for information, content, products, services and entertainment, and then consume it. As the doorway to the ever-expanding and pervasive Web, search is more essential than ever.


What does that mean to you? In angler-speak, if you want to succeed, you must fish where the fish are. In marketing-speak, you must market on search engines.


Marketers long ago realized that the targeted nature of search presents a rare opportunity to connect with customers and prospects. Whether your purpose is branding or direct response, whether your business is big or small, search marketing lets you reach people at the exact moment they are expressing interest in what you have to offer.


No push. No guesswork. No permission necessary. The searcher renders all of that moot with his query. Become his answer, and you've found true one-to-one marketing.


Three types of marketing opportunities are available through search engines: graphical ads, paid placement and paid inclusion.


Graphical advertisements. Graphical Web ads have gotten a bad rap. From banners to skyscrapers - heck, sometimes even those annoying pop-ups - graphical ads work well when presented in the right place at the right time.


It's common sense. If someone is reading an article about fishing and you display an ad about cooking, you are unlikely to get that person's attention - unless the ad is about cooking fish. The only other ways to get their attention are to interrupt them or, worse yet, overwhelm them. That's how pop-ups were born.


Search is different. Regardless of the graphical unit you employ or the objectives of your campaign, search engines produce results because the ads are displayed only when a searcher has submitted keywords related to your product or service. Keyword-targeted banners regularly outperform their content-targeted counterparts for this reason.


Paid placement. The most graceful marketing solution the Web has seen, paid placement programs guarantee that your site will receive placement within search results relevant to a particular query.


For example, if a San Francisco-based accounting firm wants to ensure that its Web site is included among search results for users seeking information on estate planning in the Bay Area, a paid placement program will ensure that a link to the firm's Web site appears within the results set for the query "Bay Area estate planning" (and potentially dozens of other keyword combinations with similar meanings).


Overture, formerly Goto.com, was the first search engine to sell paid placement listings back in 1998. AltaVista became the first major engine to test the waters with paid listings a year later. Unfortunately for AltaVista, the notion of "tainting" pure search results with paid placement went over like a lead balloon. Responding to outcries from users and press alike, AltaVista dropped the program after two months.


By 2000, however, every major search site used paid listings. Not only did they prove to be the most cost-effective ads on the Web for many marketers, but users stopped minding them after realizing that paid listings appeared only when relevant.


Paid listings typically are sold on a cost per click basis. This means advertisers pay only when a person clicks and visits its Web site. Pricing can fluctuate by the keyword, phrase or category sought. Most, however, range from 25 cents to 75 cents. Not bad, compared with the $1 average cost per telephone call returned by advertising in the yellow pages.


Paid inclusion. These programs are the most misunderstood form of online marketing. The misunderstanding usually occurs in distinguishing between paid placement and paid inclusion. Some think there is no distinction. They're wrong.


The trick is not to overthink it. Paid placement lets you buy and guarantee your site placement within search results. Paid inclusion guarantees nothing other than that your site's pages are in the "index" of Web pages (usually 1 billion to 2 billion) that a search engine combs for relevant results. If an engine's algorithms find those pages relevant, they will appear in whatever order the algorithms deem appropriate, whether that's No. 1 or No. 45,237. On the other hand, it may not choose them at all.


What are you buying, then? Services. Services related to the inclusion and maintenance of your site's pages within a search engine, such as:


· Access to dynamic pages, which results in more qualified traffic. Search engines have a difficult time finding "dynamic" pages, usually associated with e-commerce sites, because they constantly change and don't last long. As a result, search indexes are not as complete as they otherwise would be, which hurts the quality of the engine and the would-be destination sites, which could represent very relevant results. Through paid inclusion, search engines have set up a system to accept these pages.


· Frequent site refresh, which yields dynamic offers. Nondynamic pages that nevertheless change often risk being outdated by the time a search engine finds them. Through paid inclusion, search engines spend the time and resources on refreshing participating sites more often than they do for other sites on the Web. Their relevance rankings do not change, but the content on those pages does.


· Accelerated inclusion, which gets new products launched fast. "Crawling" the Web for new pages is difficult, costly and time-consuming for search engines. If a new site wishes to gain access to a search engine's index immediately, without waiting for its next scheduled crawl, that requires special treatment and resource allocation, and search companies charge for it.


Paid inclusion is priced several ways, but the most common are annual listing fees per URL and CPC. This is a rapidly growing marketing platform, and marketers aiming to drive targeted traffic to their Web sites should learn more about it.


This article has outlined the major search engine marketing vehicles, but each requires a dedicated mind to understand and use effectively. As Shrek observed, "Ogres are like onions because they both have layers." Add search engines to that list.


It may sound daunting, but search engine marketing is already a billion-dollar industry and projected to grow 30 percent yearly through the end of the decade. Start now, or you may get left behind.


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